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Regional Picks: Underused Perennials – Northern Plains

Fine Gardening - Issue 187

1. Purple Poppy Mallow

Name: Callirhoe involucrata

Zones: 4–8

Size: 6 to 9 inches tall and 2 to 3 feet wide

Conditions: Full sun; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native Range: Prairies and open woodlands in the central and southern Great Plains

In May and June, this sprawling plant produces masses of wine red, 21⁄2-inch-wide, chalice-shape flowers above mats of deeply divided leaves. Its rambling growth habit makes it a unique ground cover for dry, sunny situations; it is also beautiful tumbling over the edge of a garden wall. After the initial flush of blooms, grooming the plant can encourage a fresh crop of foliage and flowers.


2. Bottlebrush Grass

Name: Elymus hystrix

Zones: 5–9

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall; 12 to 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native Range: Dry woodlands in the east-central United States and adjacent areas of Canada

This species is not a very notable presence until it begins to flower in mid to late summer. The flowers are arranged in a narrow, bristly spike that resembles a bottlebrush. Then they mature into striking seed heads that persist through fall and into winter. With a natural preference for dry woodland habitat, it is well adapted to challenging dry-shade-garden situations. Bottlebrush grass shows best when planted in mass in a setting where the bold architecture of the seed heads can be seen and appreciated.


3. Prairie Alumroot

Name: Heuchera richardsonii

Zones: 3–9

Size: 1 to 2 feet tall and 12 to 18 inches wide

Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native Range: Prairies and open woodlands across the north-central United States and into Canada

If you love the look of coral bells but are tired of overly engineered cultivars and hybrids, consider the unadorned charm of prairie alumroot. This native wildflower produces a dense, low mound of roundish, semi-evergreen leaves from which arise wiry flowering stalks that reach about 2 feet in height. The individual flowers, produced in May and June, are small and greenish, so this is a plant you grow not for a splash of color but for the subtle beauty of its form and texture. Try it in the front of a perennial garden or massed as a ground cover. Though tiny, its bell-shape flowers attract hummingbirds.


4. Showy Goldenrod

Name: Solidago speciosa

Zones: 3–8

Size: 2 to 3 feet tall and wide

Conditions: Full sun; dry to medium, well-drained soil

Native Range: East-central United States and adjacent areas of Canada

Because they can be a bit rough around the edges, goldenrods are not often invited into the garden. But the refi ned good looks and self-restraint of showy goldenrod should put it on the guest list. This prairie wildflower starts blooming in mid to late summer and continues into October. The tiny, bright yellow flowers are densely arranged in elongate, cone-like clusters held aloft on stiff stems. As goldenrods go, this is one of the smallest and least aggressive species, making it one of the best for gardens. It is also an outstanding pollinator plant, attracting a wide variety of butterflies, bees, and wasps.


Jim Locklear is director of conservation at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha.

Photos: Bill Johnson (#1); Joshua McCullough (#2); millettephotomedia.com (#3); Nancy Ondra (#4)

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